George Packer has a column in the April 7 New Yorker about “how soldiers write their wars,” which should be re-subtitled: “how US soldiers write their wars.“ It's time we ask which stories we are hearing, and which are singing into the abyss.
Packer writes, in his exploration of (English-language, generally American) war literature:
“The war in Iraq, like the one in Vietnam, wasn’t popular; but the troops, at least nominally, were—wildly so. (Just watch the crowd at a sports event if someone in uniform is asked to stand and be acknowledged.) Both sides of the relationship, if they were being honest, felt its essential falseness. A tiny number of volunteers went off to fight, often two or three times, in a war and a country that seemed incomprehensible. They returned to heroes’ welcomes and a flickering curiosity. Because hardly anyone back home really wanted to know, the combatant’s status turned into a mark of otherness, a blessing and a curse.”
The wild popularity of the US soldier in, or returned from, Iraq has certainly fueled the interest in soldiers’ narratives. It is almost certainly linked to the unpopularity of Iraqis in the US imagination. The war itself was expensive, of questionable importance to North Americans, and made a bridge to absolutely nowhere. But Americans by and large don’t seem to blame Americans. If anything, the American public seems to blame Iraqis for somehow luring us into this war.
Americans by and large don’t seem to blame Americans
Packer writes that most US soldiers, like US citizens, have been walled off from contact with Iraqis. It is only a few — Packer points to Brian Turner — who have made an effort to address Iraqis as human. Packer writes that, “It is improbable and moving that an American soldier should write a poem of such generous, Whitmanesque spirit about this one Iraqi disaster.” (Italics mine.)
I can’t believe that it’s improbable or that “one” Iraqi disaster should move a person – soldier or otherwise — any more than I would believe that “To most foreign observers, the landscape of Iraq is relentlessly empty and ugly….” (Which foreign observers are these? Coming from where? Spending what time? When? In what context? Again — italics mine.)
Packer also says, in an approving tone, that most of the war literature to come from US veterans is “free of politics and polemics.” You’ll already see where I’m going: This is also a sort of politics.
I have already raised the question, over at Warscapes, of why there are so few translated narratives from Iraqis and Kurds compared to the gushing fountain of war literature written by US soldiers, journalists, photographers, and others briefly in Iraq. So I won’t extend that argument here.
I’ll just add that when Packer describes “return literature” — literature that imagines US veterans’ return from Iraq — it could juxtapose or play interestingly with literature about the return of Iraqis from the Iran-Iraq conflict (another bloody, long, incomprehensible war).